On news, social media and responsibility

The Guardian this morning is published under a new editor. Katharine Viner takes over from Alan Rusbridger, and she takes charge of an institution which is very different from the one Rusbridger inherited from Peter Preston in 1995.

Rusbridger yesterday published a farewell to his readers: now no longer just readers, but also both members and contributors to the conversations which The Guardian facilitates. In the internet age, some papers instituted paywalls: Rusbridger cites Murdoch’s Times, which claims around 280,000 daily readers. The Guardian took the opposite stance, opening up its content to an international readership. It is now the second most widely read online Enlish-language news “paper” worldwide: around seven million people read it online. For myself, I still subscribe to the paper edition: but the smartphone app has taken over from the website as my preferred means of access when, as recently, I am overseas. Even the BBC is not so accessible from abroad.

But the point of this post is to encourage you to read Rusbridger’s farewell in its entirety (and it’s quite long). It contains thoughtful, stimulating analysis of issues such as the place of the social web in interactive journalism – bringing forth a new role, combining journalism with the skill of forum moderation. There’s the continuing role of ethical reporting in holding people to account (including, as seen recently, its own industry peers). Illustrating the trend to online, there’s a comment that the new presses, bought when the paper changed format, were “likely to be the last we ever bought”.

He recalls The Guardian‘s first website, which “didn’t fall into the trap of simply replicating online what we did in print”; in my own career I led my company’s strategy towards the Internet and the emergent World-Wide Web, and I recognise these issues. In due course the paper has developed its interactive model, opening up for response and comment from its online readership as an important part of continuous publishing.

Wikileaks, the phone hacking scandals, Edward Snowden and more; recognition, through the Pulitzer Prize; and successes such as the curtailment of News Corporation’s monopolistic ambtions and, more recently, that the US “phone dragnet hat had secretly violated the privacy of millions of Americans every day since October 2001″ has been shut down. Interesting sideline: the link to this in Rusbridger’s article is null, and I couldn’t find a recent news article but, in the interactive Comment is Free section, there’s a discussion from the American Civil Liberties Union dating from April 2014.

I’ve scratched the surface. For those of us looking at the ethics as well as the potential of information creation and sharing – and we are all publishers now – Rusbridger’s farewell should be required reading.

Links:
• ‘Farewell, readers’: Alan Rusbridger on leaving the Guardian after two decades at the helm, The Guardian, 29 May 2015
• Obama is cancelling the NSA dragnet. So why did all three branches sign off? Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union, in Comment is Free, The Guardian, 25 March 2014
• other references in the articles

Crowdfunding: not just for geeks. Help Free Ruggiero

Just a short post. Teaching the Open University’s technology foundation course a couple of years ago introduced me to the idea of crowdfunding – I’m sure I’d have encountered it anyway, but seeing it as part of the wider picture of the social revolution added an extra dimension. Of course, crowdfunding isn’t entirely new; people have always subscribed readily to popular conventional share issues, not just in the privatisations of the last few decades but in the 19th century railway boom and earlier (look up the South Sea Bubble for one that historically went badly wrong). What’s different is that the reach is extended via the Web to people who might not otherwise think of being subscribers; and the range of rewards, while often creative and interesting, doesn’t extend to ongoing shareholder participation.

Shortly after learning about the idea, I joined one crowdfunding initiative as a result of which I now own a board game called Dreaming Spires which is about to have its official public launch. And now another, firmly in the realm of  the Arts.

We’re supporting members of the Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) which is a music festival with a difference. Not just early music concerts of a considerable excellence – and this year we were privileged to be part of two of them, built on choral and instrumental workshops we attended. But also projects which present the music in a new light, set in its historical context. This year, for example, we learned of the developments of “new” music as the style moved from Renaissance to early Baroque; feelings ran high, and “the old music” was held by some as a standard which the newer styles were pushing aside.

Next year’s BREMF will look at women composers, and the festival wants to stage what we’re calling Free Ruggiero (it has a long Italian name) which is the first complete opera known to have been composed by a woman: La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina written in 1625 by Francesca Caccini. If you apply for Arts Council funding you need to show you already have backing from other sources, and BREMF are raising this by crowdfunding through the Zequs platform.

Visit the Zequs page to find out more, if early music which challenged the norms and set ideas appeals to you. As I write, you only have nine days left to subscribe!

Links:
• Free Ruggiero on Zequs
• Brighton Early Music Festival (not just in the season)
• Dreaming Spires on Kickstarter

Dark Web: good, bad, or amoral?

Last night I watched BBC’s Horizon programme reviewing the history and impact of what’s become known as the Dark Web. Here seems to be the scenario.

In the beginning, was the Internet. In the early days of the Web I wrote a strategic report for my company which triggered the adoption of web technology and internet email. One of the things I pointed out was that, in the precursors such as newsgroups, no-one was anonymous. Traffic has identifiers or, at least, IP addresses attached to it. People know who you are, and your company’s reputation hinges on your behaviour online. As the Internet of Things expands, the amount of information about individuals that can be analysed out of internet traffic expands exponentially with it.

Governments, particularly the US, recognised the potential for compromising security and the response was TOR (The Onion Router network) which passed traffic through a number of nodes to disguise its origin. The project moved to Open Source and has become widely used in response to the growing levels of surveillance of internet traffic, revealed most notably of course by Edward Snowden. Wikileaks uses TOR to facilitate anonymous contributions: it wasn’t tracking which identified Snowden, or Manning. It has been used extensively in recent events in the Middle East.

So at this point, governments are trying to put the genie back in the bottle: they invented TOR, but they don’t like it being used to hide information from them. Moreover, it is being used for criminal transactions on a substantial scale: and at this point Bitcoin becomes part of the picture, because (unlike conventionally banked money) it too is not inherently traceable.

There’s no firm conclusion drawn in the programme, and surely that’s right. Technology of this kind isn’t inherently good or bad: it is, in the strict sense of the word, amoral. But the uses people make of it, as with almost any technology, are not amoral. And the programme raises strong issues about the balance of privacy and security, both in their widest senses. The sources used are strong and reputable: Oxford University’s Internet Institute; Julia Angwin, an established technology researcher and writer, key individuals in the development of these technologies, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, and not least Tim Berners-Lee who admits to having been perhaps naive in his early assessment of these issues.

While it’s still on iPlayer, it’s worth a watch.

Links:
• Inside the Dark Web, BBC Horizon, 3 Sep 2014 (available on iPlayer in the UK until 15 Sep)
• Tor Project online, and Wikipedia article
• Oxford Internet Institute
• Julia Angwin

Twitter business information: railways lead the way

A little while ago I facilitated an event looking at social media in business. Part of the discussion, of course, focussed on in-enterprise social interactions: tools like Yammer, which sit within the enterprise and facilitate social interaction without risking compromise of business information.

But, inescapably, there was equal emphasis on the business use of external social media. Not just to put out messages on behalf of the enterprise: but to notice and respond to what the community is saying about you. As one delegate outlined: you can pick up on Twitter or Facebook a comment from a client who’s had a poor experience, and interact directly with them to explain. And quite often, they will then post a follow-up message offering appreciation along the lines of “now I understand”. What could be negative can be turned positive.

As a minor railway buff, I was interested also to hear the number of delegates referring to their commuting experience and the way that Twitter, particularly, has developed. First, of course, as an information tool for passengers: the twittosphere carries information about delays and problems, often much faster (and perhaps more reliably!) than official information arrives from the train operator. Particularly to passengers stuck somewhere after a points failure or, heaven forbid, a suicide. But the first development from that has been the way that train operating companies (TOCs) respond: keeping a feed going, and responding to tweets about problems. The best avoid anonymity: this morning’s first feed from First Capital Connect, for example, says “Morning folks, Jay, Tina and Greg here to take you through the morning. Hope you have a super day ^Jay“. There was strong favourable comment in the room about this. Another example of Euan Semple’s mantra: Organisations don’t tweet. People do.

Then Modern Railways magazine carried a couple of articles in successive months about Twitter data on the rail network.

In July, Roger Ford’s Informed Sources column covered a website which aggregates Twitter information for passengers. The commute.london site, from Delta Rail in Derby (which used to be British Rail’s research facility), produces something like a tag cloud through which you can see tweets about incidents on your commuter route. Because it’s commute oriented, the main page is an index by TOC not by location. Though it doesn’t seem to pick up tweets from the TOCs themselves.

You can also see the overall rating your TOC is currently getting, though since the tweets are mostly adverse (more people are likely to tweet for a problem than to praise) it’s not clear how this is achieved. It’s not the only such idea; the  Twitraffic app on my mobile aggregates information about road delays and incidents, which I contribute to when on the road and (of course) not driving.

There doesn’t seem to be an app for commute.london, which is a shame. The website is mobile friendly, with big blowsy panels and large text, but all you can get to by way of detail is the entire twitter feed for the TOC. It would be nice to be able to click through words in the tag cloud.

Back in the June issue, Informed Sources reported on another business-oriented development from Delta Rail. Sophisticated visualisation shows, for example, the level of Twitter activity compared to the norm; analyses positive versus negative messages (the example is to distinguish “Thankyou very much” from “Thanks a bunch!”); and, in real time, can show the build up of an incident from the volume of feeds relating to a particular location. This may well provide information to the operators faster than their own sources: after all, passengers are on the spot! Reviewing the data, both in real time and retrospectively, against other sources such as the National Passenger Survey can produce a wider overall picture than (say) the Survey on its own.

Nice to be able to highlight an IT success!

Links:
• Tweets put passengers ahead of the game, Roger Ford, Modern Railways, June 2014, p 36
• Social Media: more than just Tweets, Roger Ford, Modern Railways, May 2014, pp 36-37 (there are no online links to the articles themselves)
• Twitter: First Capital Connect (@FirstCC)
• commute.london
• Twitraffic online or as app
• Delta Rail “Innovative Software and Technology for the Transport Industry”

It’s so easy to get drawn in …

A friend recently posted on Facebook an observation that several friends had “Liked” a posting relating to the case of the war veteran who went missing from his Hove care home in order to attend the D-Day celebrations. What concerned my friend wasn’t the underlying story; it was that that the posting in question had been placed by an organisation which is an offshoot of the BNP. No, I’m not going to add to their publicity by naming it, but you can find some discussion by following the Costa Connected link below.

My friend has a strong antipathy to the message of spurious British-ness, not least because of having a marriage partner whose family were recent immigrants – from what used to be referred to with pride as a Commonwealth country. Having lived in east London for over twenty years, and enjoyed the variety and splendour of a multi-cultural society, so do I. But that’s not the point of this post.

The point is one I’ve made before: when one assesses a piece of content, especially online, be careful. Especially especially [read that carefully, it’s not a mistake] if one proposes to share or Like it. It’s important in serious or academic reporting, which is why ITasITis postings always look behind the news reports. Media often do little more than repeat the press release, or they contain unintentional inaccuracies. Go back to the original source, look for other independent reports of the work.

But this highlights that it’s equally important in the easy world of social media.

It’s so easy to Like a Facebook posting, especially now that FB drops a lot of things into your stream that have nothing to do with your friends. It’s easy to re-tweet something without really looking. But the organisation that made the initial post, in this case, gets to count those Likes and give itself an air of unwanted respectability.

Oh and incidentally: the media reports were way over hyped. It was made out that Bernard Jordan had had to “escape” from his care home. Yes, there are people who are diagnosed as EMI (Elderly and Mentally Incompetent) who have to be protected by not being told the code for the door to the outside world. But not in this case. What actually went on was that Mr Jordan was too late to join any of the organised travel parties. So he decided to make his own way. He simply forgot to tell the home he was going and, quite rightly, they got worried when they realised he’d disappeared. Thanks to media (social and conventional) he was quickly located, but there was no suggestion that he wasn’t then safe. BBC reporting, especially locally here, was more balanced: see the links. Escapade, yes: escape, no. Another case of going behind the high-profile headlines.

But to return to the main theme: Look carefully at what you’re Liking, and equally carefully at who.

Links:
• What It Really Means When You Like or Share Content from [name deleted], Costa Connected, 7 Jun 2014 (thanks to my Facebook friend for this link)
• Disappeared D-Day veteran back in UK, BBC News, 7 Jun 2014, featuring an interview with the Chief Exec of the care home
• Bernard Jordan: City honour for veteran’s ‘heroic escapade’, BBC News Sussex, 10 Jun 2014

Privacy is a three-way relationship … or is it four+?

I’ve been reading, and I recommend, Eben Moglen’s two-part essay in The Guardian about Edward Snowden. Not the first comment but probably one of the most extensive and authoritative. Moglen is professor of law and legal history at Columbia University, and is the founder and leader of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC). He’s entitled to say “I told you so” since his Guardian bio lists an earlier article for the paper some three years ago. The SFLC itself is approaching its tenth birthday; it was founded by Moglen and others in February 2005.

This extended essay covers three full pages in each of two days’ papers so it’s not short reading. The consensus among those who broadly support Snowden’s action is that he has revealed a security industry operating beyond democratic control and subverting the very nature of democratic government. It exposes a supposed elite group who believe that the population at large is, or shelters, “the enemy” (terrorists is the current hate-word) and therefore, in a world where universal surveillance and analysis is possible, such surveillance is to be fully deployed. It’s a bit like The Section in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, but at a much higher level and operating with the full power of the subverted state.

And it’s not just the American NSA, though that’s Snowden’s origin. It’s not even just the major western allies of the US. China takes the same attitude: and though politically on the opposite side to the US, on this issue it lines up behind the same attitudes.

Moglen makes a powerful point which ought to be obvious but isn’t. Privacy is not a two-way relationship (between me and Facebook, or me and Gmail, or me and Twitter, or whoever).

If I send or receive email via Google (as an example only, but they are probably the biggest) then the person to whom I send, or from whom I receive mail also falls within Google’s all-encompassing range. They have not signed an agreement with Google, but Google knows about them. Facebook knows who I post to, whose postings I read, which non-friends I look up from time to time. Twitter knows … and so on. What does WordPress know about this blog and you, my readers?

Which is ok so far as these and other providers are trustable. But Snowden avers that, with or without their consent, they are not.

There is much more analysis in the article, but let’s stick just to this one point. The privacy relationship inherent in email is at least three way: myself, my service provider and my correspondent. But there is no relationship of explicit trust or consent between my correspondent and my provider.

Moglen asserts that we have been diverted into believing that privacy is a two way relationship. It’s not.

And of course where governments step in, either by court order or by extra-legal surveillance, this relationship becomes at least four way with the fourth partner, in all probability, unrecognised and unknown.

As a lawyer, Moglen analyses two broad threads to bring the situation under control.

First: user action. This does include community development of encryption software, for example, to which governments have not either sub-poena’d or stolen the keys, or built-in back doors. But it also include major commercial interests: the security (privacy) of their online commercial transactions is a fig-leaf. They must have people who realise this; it’s been pointed out often enough in the press. But it will probably take a disaster to galvanise enough pressure to force action.

Second: legal action. The US, in particular, is prone to expensive litigation and extensive damages settlements. Let’s open up one or two of these based on breach of trust. I hope I’m not misrepresenting Moglen’s argument here, but certainly he – as a lawyer – sees scope for lawyerly involvement.

I’ve scratched the surface. If these are issues that concern you, read Moglen’s essay in the Guardian online. Then go, as I myself have not yet done, to Moglen’s own SFLC archive where the longer version is held: four presentations given last autumn at Columbia and given their own URL. Read and think and, if you’re in a position to do so, act.

And yes, this blog post will be flagged on both Facebook and Twitter …

Links:
• Privacy under attack: the NSA files revealed new threats to democracy, Guardian, 27 May 2014
• Eben Moglen: Guardian contributor bio, with links to the 2011 article<
• Snowden and the Future, Eben Moglen, Columbia, Oct-Dec 2013
• Software Freedom Law Center
• Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (Wikipedia)

Lego as social media

Yes you did read that correctly.

I caught up, a day or two ago, on a programme put out on the BBC Culture Show on 4th March about Lego.

The programme comments on the characteristics of Lego. It charts its evolution from a very simple kit of highly standard basic blocks. Today’s typical box contains the parts for a specific model, which are no way generic: many of the individual parts are of use for that model and that one only.

But what caught my attention towards the end of the programme was the description of how Lego has been used to enable communities to contribute to their own architectural evolution.

Bjarke Ingels, a contemporary leading architect, has used Lego to design architecture from a standard kit of parts: but far more imaginatively than the square tower blocks of the 1960s.

More striking still was Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson whose Collectivity project took three tonnes of Lego to the citizens of Tirana, Albania in 2005. The bricks were just dumped in a heap in the town square and, within a short time, groups of people were creating, building, and re-imagining their city. The Lego acted as a medium through which they could express their ideas – not individually, but together. Not mentioned in the programme is that this is one of a range of similar projects; I’ve found others in Oslo (2011) and Copenhagen (2008).

At the end of the programme, there’s a move into actual social media and a look at Minecraft which, if you haven’t heard of it (I hadn’t!) is a cult computer game. Minecraft may be set to transform the cities of the future: like Tirana’s Lego, but in the virtual online world. It’s worth a look at the video on Minecraft’s home page. As Minecraft’s website says: “At first, people built structures to protect against nocturnal monsters, but as the game grew players worked together to create wonderful, imaginative things”.

Isn’t that what our social media, at their best, aim to do? Not for people to create individually, for their own gratification, but to share and create together. And like early Lego, the best social platforms are the ones which offer a simple kit of parts from which sophisticated collaborative spaces can be created.

Links:
• Lego – The Building Blocks of Architecture: BBC, 4 Mar 2014. The programme itself is not available here; this is just a short outline. It is available on YouTube: I don’t know if this is a legit copy!
• Lego Towers project from the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), which showcases many projects on its website. Ingels comes into the programme about 15 minutes in.
• Collectivity Project from Olafur Eliasson. The Tirana project is covered in the programme from about 19 minutes.
The Collectivity Project (Olafur Eliasson), OpenIDEO (contribution by Anne Kjaer Riechert), 17 Nov 2011.
• Olafur Eliasson’s LEGO for public tower building 2008
, YouTube, 13 Oct 2008 (Copenhagen: linked from a comment to the OpenIDEO posting)
• Minecraft